The Mackinac Bridge, 1958: When America Dreamed Big Dreams, it Built Grand and Wonderous Things...

There are certain touchstones in popular culture that evoke an immediate memory-trace:

Really wide lapels on sports jackets with really wide neckties accenting them give off the odor of the mid-1970’s. A picture of a youthful Richard Nixon, or a shot of a hula-dancing Elvis Presley, immediately transports you to the 1950’s. Most movies of the last twenty years show various evolutions of mobile phones that date them to an exact time and place.  

To this day, any combination of light teal and orange-salmon hues transports me to the Howard Johnson’s of my (very young) childhood, eating baskets of fried clams and driving with Mom and Dad on the sizzling new Interstate between Lansing and Grand Rapids. Any time I see a earth-toned vest on a young lady (a rare thing, indeed, these days), I think of Annie Hall.

In my musings about the vast movements of American life and culture, though, I settle on one immutable fact: The greatness of our nation, the sheer “bigness” of our scope, the vastness of our ideals and progress, peaked in the years 1958 until about 1962. The vast currents of American life never ran as deep and strong as they did in those four brief years: The awakenings of civil equality (after nearly one-hundred years in slumber) was nearing full throttle in a peacable manner. The Mercury Space Program was in full swing, the World Trade Center was conceived.

The first enormously successful oil wells in Alaska were drilled on the north slope in those years. Jack Killby at Texas Instruments developed the first integrated circuit in 1959. The Interstate Highway system grew at an amazing pace, extending from only 3,220 miles completed in 1957 to over 12,000 miles in 1962. America thought big. Anything was possible. 

New school buildings and skyscrapers blossomed across the land, the first shopping malls were built. The first commerically successful prototype nuclear power plants came on-line. The exploding middle class was purchasing not only their new homes, but their vacation homes and cabins, as well. The concept of “controlled growth” would have been properly laughed off the stage as a collectivist term, not something meant for a great, free and burgeoning nation that reached for the very heavens.

Some of the movies of the era (West Side Story, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Longest Day, To Kill a Mockingbird) assume a level of emotional and intellectual depth on the part of their audience that no movie-maker would ever dare assume today. The opening sequence of West Side Story alone, with it’s near stream-of-conscience animation that blends and re-blends scenes of New York, would send directors screaming into the night in the early 21st century. Without tawdry computer animation, or adolescent toilet humor, a movie is scarcely a movie in 2011.

Our entertainments and news media, back in those days, used to reflect the broader culture. Today, by virtue of so few people being able to discern between these entertainments and the news media that reports them (the Casey Anthony trial being a USDA Prime Example of this), these outlets actually drive events in our modern era. If but the reverse had been true: That back in the day, when the news media were circumspectual toward events and their players, had actually chosen to imbue a culture with grace and spiritual thoughtfulness that today is darned near scorned, (if not held in outright contempt) we would be a better nation for it.

The case of the Mackinac Bridge fits in very neatly in this Grand Era of America– and it is a curious case, at that– especially when viewed through the fifty-year memory-hole since it was officially opened to traffic in June of 1958. As I say, this occured during the Peak of America’s Golden Age. Few Americans, in the broadest sense, have ever heard of the Mackinac Bridge, and even fewer could find it on a map, and fewer still have ever had an occasion to drive across it’s 5-mile expanse. To this day, though, it remains the third longest suspension bridge (between anchor blocks) in the world, and it connects Michigan’s lower peninsula with the Upper.

Imagine Michigan in the early 1950’s: Detroit had enormous shoulders, with nearly two million folks laboring away in the automobile and jobber factories. Michigan was the sixth-largest state in the Union. Its’ average age, according to the 1960 census was 19.2 years. Grand Rapids provided most of the office furniture for the world, with large factories for Steelcase and Herman Miller. Michigan was also the home for Kellogg’s, Dow Chemical and Upjohn Pharmaceuticals. Michigan was a world-beater.

And yet, the only way for people of one peninsula of Michigan to visit people of another was for them to travel through two or three adjacent states, or queue up to cram their automobiles in alarmingly rickety ferries, oftentimes waiting hours in line for the privilege.

This started to change in the late 1940’s. Some studies were conducted on the feasibility of a bridge across the Straits that connected Lakes Huron and Michigan. Then a quasi-governmental Authority was ensconced to flesh out designs, locations, and finally, sell revenue bonds to build it. The first two attempts to float the bonds failed, but on the third attempt, all $95 million, sold out. Bridge construction started in 1955.

Note: There were no lawsuits filed on behalf of the fishes swimming about the Straits. No “environmental” advocacy groups sprouted up to condemn the construction and tie it up in court for decades.No one tied themselves piously to a tree to stop construction. No; some folks that had lived in the area for generations simply wanted to build a bridge, and saw an enormous need and opportunity– and the bridge got built.

And so, on June 28th, 1958, the Mackinac Bridge was officially dedicated, and opened to traffic.

As I say, the newspapers in that day were more intent on reporting events than shaping and molding them with idiotic poll results and and insulting headlines. In the week before the dedication,The Detroit Free Press, in fact, completely abandoned it’s usual front-page format, instead opting to publish a full-page picture of the new span, and went so far as to reverse-out it’s masthead in the darkened upper corner of the photo. It also published, there, on the front page, the following soliloquy. It was the only “copy” on the front page that day:

We will dedicate the Mackinac Bridge on Saturday.

But to whom or to what shall it be dedicated?

A slim, serene span– glad of its grace, superb in its strength, proud of it power to unite.

A marvelous, utilitarian monument made by men with the skills God put into their hand, with the vision He put into their minds, with the spirit He put into their hearts.*

But a monument to whom? To what?

It is a monument to many men, many things. Any or all the dedications would be graciously received.

It could be dedicated to men.

Men who dreamed, like the 1880’s editor of a Traverse City newspaper who noted that all efforts to provide all-year service across the Straits of Mackinac had failed. There had to be “a crossing”.

Like Prentiss M. Brown, who wanted the Bridge a quarter century ago and who, for eight years, has been chairman of the Bridge Authority.

Like Governor Williams, who reactivated that authority, and put the wheels in motion and gave the others their chance.

Like Dr. David B. Steinman, bridge genius-designer of the green and ivory span and 400 other bridges on five continents.

Like the late Charles T. Fisher, a member of the authority who brought to it a knowledge of how to get money, and how best to use it.

And many thousands more.

It could be dedicated to the five workmen who gave their lives to string steel across the choppy waters that delayed, for decades the progress of the vast Upper Peninsula.

Frank Pepper, diver, died of the bends. James R. LeSarge fell into a caisson and was killed. Albert B. Abbott drowned in a pier cofferdam. Jack C. Baker, and Robert Koppen plunged to their deaths from the North Tower.

It could be dedicated to them– the soldiers of construction.

It could be dedicated to progress– to the idea that one must go forward, or wither and die.

It could be dedicated to freedom– to  the idea that the five mile epic poem in the medium of steel could only have been built by men who were free, by men who built the Bridge because they wanted to build it, by men who knew that while they built it they were close to God.

It must be dedicated to these men, to these things– and it will.

It will be dedicated to the people of the State of Michigan and the United States of America.

 With the guidance of Unseen Hands, the people built it. With His continued guidance, they will use it– for centuries.

   -WILLIAM SUDOMTER,  Free Press Staff

   *Bold emphasis mine

 Can you fathom such soaring prose applauding a road construction project appearing on the pages of the New York Times or any American daily newspaper today? Can you imagine the acknowledgment of God’s “unseen hands” appearing anywhere in mainstream culture? And the praise for “progress”? Who on earth, in these days of government enforced scarcity, can imagine a front page story saluting the beneficence of “progress”, lest we “wither and die”?

But–yes, Virginia, there was a time when America’s dreams were only outstripped by its steel-hardened reality. And the completion of the Mackinac Bridge that windy June day in 1958 was a big part of that reality.

What is our reality now?

Our culture seems to point to a people that no longer dream, or envision a big, bold and grand future. We apologize, quite literally, for our past dreams and accomplishments. We don’t count our blessings, we count our grievances. Our children are no longer taught to find thier bootstraps and pull, but to cow suppinely in the face of our material plenty, and figure out how to use less, settle for less, think less, and accept less. Where we used to thank God Almighty for his “unseen hand”, we spit in His face, if we even acknowledge that His face exists.

We have a national debt so enormous, and a federal government so out of control, that it borrows more in two hours than the president proposes in actual cuts. The Chief Actuary of Medicare says the program will cease to exist before the decade is out, and it already is unfunded to the tune of $23 trillion dollars. We’ve spent more wealth that hasn’t even been created yet, that it will take generations and nations as yet unknown to pay it all off.

And yet, what, exactly, did we buy with all this money? Did we build any Mackinac Bridges? Did we turn on any nuclear power plants? Did we invent any life-changing technologies? According to a cursory glance at the Obama-Pelosi Debt, it (that is, the $5 trillion incurred in their tenure) would have paid for the Apollo Program, the Second Word War, the Interstate Highway System, the Vietnam War, the Persion Gulf War, Federal Revenue Sharing for transportation, the Saint Lawrence Sea Way, the Marshall Plan, and the Manhattan Project, combined— in inflation adjusted dollars. Is there anything we can point to in all of this spending that made as significant a difference in people’s lives as the progress that was made in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s? Anything?

And did we ever acknowledge God’s Unseen Hand in the blessings to be able to spend it? And did we even realize a grand and glorious dream?

No. Like a teenager after opening their first MasterCard statement, all we’ve got is a pile of unpaid bills.